A project of Bar-Ilan University's Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Sponsored by Dr. Ruth Borchard of the Shoresh Charitable Fund (SCF).
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Parashat Beshalach(Shabbat Shira)-5758, 1998
"They said to one another, 'What is it?' ... 'That is the bread'
Dr. Aharon Gimani
Jewish Studies Program
Manna is mentioned several times in the Bible, mainly in this week's reading (Ex. 16:11-36) and in Numbers (11:6-9). A source well worth studying on manna is the commentary and glosses of R. Saadiah Gaon. While we possess the Gaon's Arabic translation of the Torah, his longer commentary to the Torah has not survived intact. Some of his ideas can be inferred from medieval commentators who cited them, and fragments of his commentary were found among the Cairo genizah documents and were translated and published by Prof. Judah Ratzhabi [Sinai 91 (1982), pp. 203-205; ibid., 93 (1983), pp. 8-9].
By way of introduction, Saadiah Gaon's interpretation of the Torah rests on three foundations: the plain sense of the scriptural verse; natural intelligence; and tradition (hamekubbal) in the sense of the transmitted traditions of the Sages (see the preface to his commentary on the Torah, which has survived). With regard to our subject, Manna, according to Saadiah Gaon, means food, such as is served at a meal, and not sweets. Therefore it had to be prepared like any other food (Saadiah Gaon's Commentary on the Torah, Rabbi Y. Kafih ed., p. 77). With regard to the manner in which the manna descended, Saadiah follows the Mekhilta. After the wind had cleaned the surface, dew descended on the ground and then the manna fell on the dew and thus remained clean (Ratzhabi, loc. sit., p. 203). The manna took the form of hard kernels like wheat, as we read in Exodus 17:31, "It was like coriander seed, white." Likewise, R. Nathanel ben Isaiah, a 14th-century Yemenite rabbi, wrote in Meor ha-Afelah (p. 408): "Little granules, like drops of dew, except congealed, gatherable, and translucent like crystal."
In the morning the people went out to gather an omer (approx. 5 lbs.) per person. Additional work was required to prepare it for eating, as described in Numbers 11:8: "The people would go about and gather it, grind it between millstones or pound it in a mortar, boil it in a pot, and make it into cakes. It tasted like rich cream." In other words, the grains of manna were too hard to be eaten, and therefore were milled or crushed and boiled. Saadiah Gaon rejects the opinion of other commentators who try to explain the manna as a natural phenomenon, believing it to be the food found in the desert, known as "tarnagabin."
A minority believe the manna was similar to al-tarnagabin or some other dessert food made of sweets and honey. This is not so, since these delicacies are soft and light, as we observe, and do not hold up in water. Manna, however, had to be treated in one of two ways: it was either ground between millstones and shaped into loaves of bread or biscuits baked on coals; or it was pounded in a mortar and cooked in a pot like al-harissa [ a dish of meat and bulgur; the Arabic root harasa means to crush, mash, pound] (Ratzhabi, loc. sit., 8).
Scriptures describe its flavor as being "like wafers in honey" (Ex. 16:31), or "like rich cream" (Num. 11:8). In view of these verses, Saadiah Gaon describes its taste as "something sweet and rich" (Saadiah Gaon's Commentary, Kafih ed., p. 152). Ratzhabi notes that al-harissa is what the Jews of Yemen call their traditional "cholent" eaten on the Sabbath.
The manna was gathered every morning, as described in the reading (Ex. 16:16): "Gather as much of it as each of you requires to eat, ... each of you shall fetch for those in his tent." The manna was gathered according to the quantity needed by each household. Whether a person gathered more than he needed, or less, when he arrived home he would have exactly the amount necessary for his family. Saadiah Gaon's comments on the words, "each of you shall fetch for those in his tent," are original and interesting: "The Torah here obligated the husband to protect his wife's honor; he is responsible for supplying her needs, and she was not commanded to go out and collect food for herself." Ratzhabi notes in this regard, "This is the origin of the practice among eastern communities not to let wives go to the market. The men themselves went out and procured the household's needs" (Ratzhabi, loc. sit., p. 204, n. 48).
The manna descended every morning, except on Sabbaths, holidays, and the Day of Atonement, for forty years -- the duration of the Israelites' wandering in the wilderness. The Israelites reached the wilderness of Sin (Ex. 16:1), "on the fifteenth day of the second month." Saadiah Gaon notes that this day, the 15th of Iyyar, fell on a Sabbath. On this day the people complained, and the manna began to descend the following morning, Sunday. This fits in with a later verse in the reading (16:22): "On the sixth day they gathered double the amount of food" (Saadiah Gaon's Commentary on the Bible, London, 1960, p. 61). Regarding the duration of the manna descending, it says in this weeks' reading (16:35), "And the Israelites ate manna forty years, until they came to a settled land; they ate the manna until they came to the border of the land of Canaan." It ceased when the Israelites were at the steppes of Jericho, about to enter the Land of Israel (Josh. 5:11-12): "On the day after the Passover offering, ... they ate of the produce of the country, unleavened bread and parched grain. On that same day, when they ate of the produce of the land, the manna ceased." Saadiah Gaon sees the manna descending every morning as related to the Creator promising man sustenance, the giver of life also being the provider of food.
Saadiah also attributes other ideas to the manna: the way it increased or decreased in quantity, according to need, provides a clue about bringing peace and resolving conflicts. How so?
It is like a husband and wife who have had a falling out. He says, "She has offended me," and she says, "He has offended me." The judge orders him to measure how much manna he has collected, and orders her father likewise. If one extra portion of food was found in what her husband had gathered, then it was she who had been offensive, and she ought to live with her husband. But if one extra portion was found in what her father gathered, then it was her husband who had been offensive, and she ought to be with her father. Thus the manna clarified many cases and resolved many doubtful issues. (Ratzhabi, loc. sit., p. 204).
In Saadiah Gaon's opinion, the manna was a greater wonder than the marvels the Israelites witnessed in Egypt. For, as he points out in his introduction to Emunot Ve-De'ot, his philosophical tract, sustaining close to two million people for forty years with food created, as it were, from the air, is no mean feat. The manna was a delicate food, a diet suited for the teaching of wisdom to the Jewish people ( Emunot Ve-De'ot, tenth section, Kafih ed., p. 315). We have seen that the manna was a natural and miraculous phenomenon, and Saadiah added a spiritual dimension as well.
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